A father’s role matters just as much as a mother’s, intellectually speaking

A father’s important role is not so easily dismissed in a new gene study crediting the shaping of a child’s intellect solely with the mother.

Yuko Hirao | Stocksy United

I recently read an interesting article about intelligence. Apparently, scientists are now attributing any smarts a child inherits to their mother. Hallelujah, right? Now, when one of my four little ones grows up and performs life-saving brain surgery on a patient, or another one of my children wins the Nobel Prize, I’ll be able to really shine at the parish potluck. “Yes, it’s actually his second award,” I’ll say demurely. “But a child is bound to make huge strides in literature and physics when his mother got straight B’s in college and parked next to the class valedictorian once.”

Frankly, this latest-breaking news bulletin from the world of science terrifies me slightly. Are my children solely dependent on me to thrive intellectually? I hope not. Just this morning, it took me three tries to get the laundry from the washer to the dryer without dropping it on the floor, I can’t spell the word “restaurant” without spell check, and I put the wrong key in my front door at least two times a day. My husband, on the other hand, can fix anything I break on the computer, change the oil in both our cars, and once stopped me from pulling bravely in the wrong direction on a one-way street.

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Still, the question deserved going over. Had I inherited my brains from my mom or my dad? Admittedly, I’m a lot like my mom. We both majored in English and love to read. Discussing characters and storylines comes as naturally to us as breathing. And as I’ve grown older, my need for organization and the ability to multi-task in a home full of kids also smacks of the woman who taught me how to hone an efficient five-paragraph essay and balance a checkbook at the same time. She gave me a freakish gift for remembering faces, an ease with diagramming sentences, and a good head for trivia. For years, 3:30 was Jeopardy time in our house. “Paige used to sit and rock back and forth to the theme song when she was only two,” mom tells anyone who wonders out loud at our strange obsession.

But as much as I can hear my mom come out when I scream “What is a three-toed sloth?” at Alex Trebek, the fact I’ve created an entire backstory about why the famous game show host shaved off his mustache is all my dad. The part of my brain that constantly drifts toward writing stories and taking mental notes on someone’s hand gestures so I can drop them in a funny paragraph is, I’m certain, a skill curated from my other parent.

Sacrificial love isn’t a given for the highly intelligent. Even if I’d been gifted with a genius IQ, if mom and dad hadn’t laid the groundwork for love, empathy, and kindness to others, I might not have learned at all.

After I read the article about intelligence, I thought about both of my parents and honestly couldn’t decide one way or another. Sure, there’s a possibility my mom’s genetic code laid the groundwork for intercepting knowledge and interpreting it, but aren’t the skills and passions that both parents contribute the factors matter most? I think so. Complicated gene pool aside, it’s the gift of a strong parenting partnership that ends up leaving an indelible mark. My mom and dad perfected (in my eyes) a delicate dance of giving on both their parts.

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I suppose I could go tit-for-tat over which of my parents gave me intelligence in various areas, but it was the tangible things in my childhood that educated me most. Watching them both pitch in to get all 10 of us kids ready for mass on Sunday, and then taking everyone out for bagels afterward, when money was tight, spoke volumes about teamwork and generosity. My mom always says she’s never known a man who can dress a baby in tights and put her in a car seat faster than my dad. Sacrificial love isn’t a given for the highly intelligent. Even if I’d been gifted with a genius IQ, if mom and dad hadn’t laid the groundwork for love, empathy, and kindness to others, I might not have learned at all.

My parents would choke on their drinks if I ever compared them to the Holy Family, but I think there’s a lot to be said for two people who gave each other the chance to educate their children in their own specific way. The truth is, I’ll probably never know what role genetics played in building my skill set, but one thing’s clear: If anyone’s ever hiring an author to write fan fiction about Alex Trebek and three-toed sloths, I’m your girl.


Paige Kellerman
Paige Kellerman
Paige Kellerman is a writer, humorist, and mother whose hypochondria is exceeded only by her ability to change diapers. Part sinner, part saint, part gin enthusiast, she spends her days running after four children, and trying to call everyone by the right name. She resides in Kansas City, rarely exercises, and feels strongly breakfast cereal can be dinner and lunch cereal, if she just believes. She is the author of "At Least My Belly Hides My Cankles" and "The Beer’s Folded and the Laundry’s Cold," and is hard at work on her next collection of humor.

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